Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Darwin and his doctor

After his voyage (1831-1836) on the ship HMS Beagle, when he sailed around the world studying and learning about biology and geology, Charles Darwin, settled down in England and wrote the book the Voyage of the Beagle. It was a bestseller, as far as travel narratives went, and inspired later explorers like Alfred Russel Wallace to also travel to South America.

Darwin spent the next twenty years gathering material from across the world, communicating with botanists and zoologists and collectors and experts in various other fields. He had formed the outline for the theory of speciation and his proposal for its mechanism - natural selection; but he kept it secret. But he made a significant reputation as a geologist, writing a major book on coral reefs. His explanation of the slow elevation of the landmass of South America - he had seen fossils of marine creatures high up in the Andes - was enthusiastically welcomed by his mentor and new friend in Geology, Charles Lyell. Darwin had taken Lyell's book Principle of Geology, on his voyage and it had helped him understand biology in a way no one else previously could.

In the meanwhile, in the 1840s, one of his friends asked him to study barnacles, and explain them since there was such confusion about them. Darwin estimated it would take him a month. It took him eight years.

This fascinating side-track to his researches is beautifully narrated in a book, Darwin and the Barnacle, by Rebecca Stott. I have been going to the Anna Centennial Library in Kotturpuram, Madras, for the past few weeks and reading this book. This library is a treasure house of wonderful books on all subjects and one of my great delights has been reading Wallace’s books there, among others. But this time, Darwin.

What fascinated me about this book, were two lateral matters : Darwin’s medical treatment and his fiscal situation. Darwin was a frequently sick person, suffering from several ailments of the stomach. He suffered terribly through his ocean voyages. Land did not improve things. But he was receiving barnacles by email, dissecting barnacles, discussing barnacles, occasionally going to the sea to collect barnacles, discovering new species of barnacles, getting confused by their variety and bizarreness. For a while barnacles were his only pleasure, besides his children.

Darwin's Water Cure

Dr James Gully, who was recommended by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, an acquaintance of  Darwin, had some severe but effective methods treatment. One was the wet-wrap ; a wet sheet wrapped tightly around his body, almost like an Egyptian mummy.

Another was the douche, a French word meaning shower. But this was no simple shower. A 640 gallon water tank was install on a stage in an outhouse of Darwin’s house – this let out water through a two inch pipe. This may not sound like much to those of us who have been soaked in the waterfalls like Courtallam or Papanasam or Ambasamudram, but Darwin lived in much colder England. One must also remember that modern plumbing system, with piped water, hot and cold, had not been invented yet.

The freakiest treatment Darwin underwent, was lamp baths. We don’t associate lamps with baths! How do you bathe with a lamp? In this system, one sat on a stool wrapped in towels with a lamp under the stool getting warmer and warmer, until suddenly sweat poured down like a torrent. This sounds more like cooking than curing!

To top it all, Dr Gully’s water cure included
1.     Homeopathy
2.     Mesmerism
3.     Hydropathy
Gully’s philosophy was that the body's "natural energies" would cure itself. 

Allopathic (Western medicine) doctors today consider these to be nothing but quackery, with no scientific basis whatsoever. Think about the irony of this : the world’s most famous biologist was treated by a famous London doctor by methods that are laughed at today. Of such episodes is made the history relevant to the common man, more than the wars and wealth and the romances of rulers and armies.

It was only in the next few decades that such standard practices such as sterilization, the importance of clean water, chemical pills etc were discovered. And the invention of antibiotics had to wait until the Second World War.

A later story is illuminating. American President James Garfield was shot by an assassin. The doctors tried to extract a bullet by using their bare fingers! He died two months later, most likely by infection. The shooter was hanged for assassination, even though, it is quite possible that it was the doctors’ unsterilized probing that mostly killed Garfield. Closer home, V Krishnaswamy Iyer of Madras, died of a septic infection when the medal pinned on him in the 1911 Delhi Durbar by King George the Fifth pricked his skin! This would be cured by cheap medicine today.

Coming back to Darwin’s treatment. In addition, Dr Gully issued these orders.

No work
Minimal reading
No writing (except a few minutes a day)
No sugar, salt, rich foods stimulants alcohol or snuff.
Also forbidden : barnacles!

Stott writes that this ban on barnacles was the hardest thing Darwin had to bear. He was equally appalled at the ban on snuff, but his daughter Annie would occasionally smuggle it into his study, it seems!

Darwin used his writing allowance to write letters to collect barnacles from others!

The Curiosity of Englishmen

The sheer variety of collectors and enthusiasts is mind numbing, and gives an insight into the scientific spirit and curiosity of segments of England’s population of those times. If Britannia ruled the waves, it was not merely by military power, naval power or the business skills of its traders – these endeavors played a significant part in England’s significant role in the 19th century, which continues today.

James Bowerbank, London distillery owner and sponge collector sent Darwin barnacles attached to his sponges. Edward Forbes, banker and son of a timber merchant, followed Alexander the great's Asian route and discovered 18 buried cities! He explored sea creatures in Lycian coast, where Aristotle had once walked and wrote books on starfish and jelly fish , became professor of botany at King's college. Such brilliant collectors and the newly established efficient and dependable postal system (more on it later) were the substrate of infrastructure that helped Darwin become such a brilliant biologist. No wonder then, that several thoughtful Indians in the nineteenth century, welcomed British rule as benevolent and beneficent, a magnificent harness pulling India along into a glorious new scientific age.

Related Links

1. Rebecca Stott
2. A brief history of Surgery (video)
3. Alfred Russel Wallace (in Tamil)
4. The Thames and the Cooum
5. Pleasures of a Library 

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